A woman is praying as hard as she can. Two minutes later, elsewhere in the crowd, a man is crying. Let me tell you about Atletico Madrid.
I’m not a football fan, but last weekend I happened to be staying in Spain with a friend who is. We watched the end-of-season league decider between AM and Barcelona, and she told me the story. Two seasons ago AM are adrift. A team of talented local boys who cannot hold it together. Their key striker, in particular, will often go off the ball to settle an argument with fists. When their manager leaves, an ex-player puts himself forward to take over for a season – he stays for two. During that time, he pulls them together. As a fellow street-fighter, he teaches the striker to channel his energy. And slowly the team rises. Challenging the eternal dominance of the main two clubs: Barcelona and Real Madrid – who have co-opted all of the broadcasting rights and built up teams with such depth that Barcelona can boast three strikers, each of whom has been the top goal scorer for their separate countries. And this is the team that Atletico Madrid faces.
Twenty minutes into the game and AM have lost two of their best players to injury, including the striker. And this is a team of only eleven good players. No depth. All they have to do is draw, but at half-time they are a goal down – with the one glimmer of hope that a Barcelona player has been sent off, reducing them to ten.
When Atletico Madrid return, two of the players are wearing different-coloured boots: one from each of their fellow injured players. And the team plays like a team: energy and commitment. They level the score, then settle in to defend their advantage.
With two minutes to go, a woman in the stands is praying as hard as she can; and, when the whistle goes, a man is crying with relief.
Any good story telling requires an ability to tap into strong emotion. The genres practically announce the emotion to be evoked: romance, thriller, horror. Even literary fiction will have at its core an emotion that is being drawn out, explored.
A quick scan across my books-to-keep shelf shows:
Pride and Prejudice – love
Catch 22 – anger and humour
Code of the Woosters – humour
Sophie’s Choice – loss
Middlemarch – love, loss, thwarted hope
And it’s not just football and novels. When I learnt stand-up comedy, the teacher Jill Edwards told us we could use two techniques. The first, just thinking of set-ups and punchlines. The second, to dig deeper and deeper into a subject using a strong emotion: anger, worry, love; without ever trying to be funny. Just ranting on the same subject. Whatever you may think of him, when Michael McIntyre talks about ‘The Man Drawer’, he doesn’t just think it’s interesting – he LOVES it! Watch him build the obsession: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgUpDGAIdds
So, why is all of this bothering me? Partly because I’m writing a novel that could very easily lose touch with emotion: becoming an exercise in humour and imagination. Emotion is a lodestar that tells any creative person whether or not they are on the right track. The rote of techniques, structures, questionnaires and exercises often lose the fact that emotion is what drives the good writer and draws in the reader.
On Saturday 24 May, Atletico Madrid will attempt the double: finalists in the European Champions League. And who are they up against? Real Madrid. That other titan of Spanish football. This post is being written before the game, but posted after. I could add the result. But I won’t. Partly because if you’re interested you’ll find out. But also there is an argument to be made that the best football teams are not those who win or lose, but those who tell the best stories.
With thanks to Isabella Lawrence. Anyone interested in learning stand-up comedy from Jill Edwards, the person who taught Seann Walsh, Jimmy Carr, Francesca Martinez and others, go to http://jill-edwards.co.uk/